From beauty queens to Hindu nationalism

‘Fake News’ during the Rohingya Crisis

Kai Clark

PHOTO: EU Aid

Society and culture, Development | Southeast Asia

28 May 2019

Kai Clark explores the role of Facebook in Myanmar’s ongoing ethnic violence.

During the Rohingya crisis, Facebook made international headlines multiple times for its failure to combat hate speech and ‘fake news’ in Myanmar.

It’s not the first time Facebook has come under fire for helping to spread misinformation. But, while Facebook was grossly negligent in its handling of hate speech in Myanmar, it is not solely to blame for the propagation of virulent anti-Rohingya content online.

Myanmar’s attitude towards the Rohingya has always been contentious –  their citizenship has never been acknowledged, and many ethnic Burmans have long viewed them with suspicion. The rapid spread of mobile devices in the last decade, along with Facebook’s monopoly over social media, and the ongoing influence of the military have fed these existing prejudices and allowed disinformation to spread widely during the crisis.

Examining both the context of these messages and how they are spread gives us an insight into the complicated nature of how ‘fake news’ is weaponised to divide societies. It also gives us a better understanding in how to combat it, and the digital literacy skills we need to do so.

But before we continue, we should first abandon the phrase ‘fake news’. Instead, media scholars advocate for the use of more precise terms, such as ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation,’ to describe false information spread online.  ‘Fake news,’ as it becomes more widespread, is increasingly used to attack opinions and even facts that politicians or their supports find inconvenient.

A recent investigation found that Myanmar’s military conducted a targeted online disinformation campaign to vilify the Rohingya and distract from its military operations in Rakhine state.  Over 20 senior military commanders, including Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, posted disinformation falsely linking the Rohingya to Islamic extremists. Given the military’s popularity and presence in Myanmar, this was seen as a clear endorsement of anti-Rohingya views.

After dithering for much of the Rakhine crisis, Facebook eventually banned these pages for hate speech in August 2018. But the damage had already been done – at their peak, these pages reached up to 1.35 million people and were followed by nearly 12 million users.

What’s more, the military’s campaign wasn’t limited to simply posting on their own Facebook pages.  The junta sent chain messages to spread confusion and fear. Messages falsely claiming that Muslim insurgents would attack Yangon mosques on the anniversary of 9/11 spread widely in the lead-up to the date – spreading enough panic to affect behavior on the day.

They also co-opted popular figures in Burmese society, including Burmese beauty queen, Shwe Eain Si. The celebrity posted a video on her Facebook during the peak of Rohingya violence appealing to the international community to understand the crisis from the Burmese standpoint of national sovereignty. The video was widely shared and watched online in Myanmar.

But anti-Rohingya sentiment doesn’t only originate in military campaigns. There is also a significant chunk of disinformation that comes from grassroots sentiments or foreign interests. My research shows examples of ordinary Myanmar citizens sharing videos or memes vilifying the Rohingya. These usually portray the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ migrants or blame them for terror attacks. Some are copy-and-pasted chain messages following the military line. They can come from both fake accounts and concerned citizens.

Sometimes, anti-Rohingya sentiment takes on a life of its own outside Myanmar.

More on this: Aiding conflict in Myanmar?

The Times of India, one of India’s largest English-language newspapers, published many videos on its Facebook page depicting the Rohingya as terrorists infiltrating its borders. While its reasons are still unclear, it may point to the rise of Hindu Nationalism and antagonism towards Islam in India.

Some Burmese Facebook users also adopt the language of, or even share, anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant posts from right-wing European commentators and Facebook pages.

Research shows that social media helps amplify extremist messages that would otherwise find difficulty getting traction. This allows it to reach critical mass and become adopted by influential groups in society.

Facebook is particularly influential in Myanmar.

In August last year, Reuters released a special report highlighting how a lack of Burmese speaking staff, poor translations software, slow response and complete oversight over flagged content allowed hate speech to spread. This correlated with a spike in violence against the Rohingya.

Unlike Western states facing similar problems, Myanmar lacks strong democratic institutions and governmental norms to combat disinformation online. Furthermore, unlike extremist movements in Western countries, anti-Rohingya sentiment is something that finds majority appeal. While the international exposure may have encouraged Facebook to take action against disinformation, these nuances suggest there is no easy fix for Myanmar’s online woes.

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